ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
The lack of a book by a mainstream press is one reason
my work is not more widely known. I never wanted whatever
success or relevance I achieve to be based in whole or
even significantly on my association with the mainstream
Books by Kalamu ya Salaam
My Story My Song (CD)
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Interview with Award Winning Neo-Griot
Kalamu ya Salaam
Changes in Literary Style & Mainstream Publishing
Kalamu: Not much at all. In fact, over the last decade I have been focusing on fiction and over the last three or so years focusing on video. I have not produced much (for me) poetry. Of course, I keep developing incrementally but there have been no major stylistic developments. In fact except for the formal forms of haiku and my investigation of 14-line, emotionally-led poems (variations of sonnets), everything I am now doing I was already doing with my first book.
The blues, jazz, narrative and political poems were established as my direction by 1969 with “The Blues Merchant.” I have great facility with poetry but writing poetry is not my main focus. In fact, because I have done so much journalism and critical writing, poetry has never been the main or sole focus of my work, and as a result, my attention to poetry ebbs and flows.
Rudy: When did you begin these formal experiments? I know that as early as 1985 you were writing haikus. You gave me one of them to publish in Cricket, my short-lived poetry journal. It was “Haiku No. 30.”
Haiku No. 30
Swabbed in sweat drenched bliss
we answer greggs cornet with
butt shaking footnotes
As I recall, you set as your task to write one hundred haikus and publish those as a book of poems. What became of that project? You have continued to work with the form.
Kalamu: Oh, I started this particular wave of haiku writing around 1985. Investigating haiku was a byproduct of me trying to come to grips, emotionally, with me leaving my marriage and the subsequent divorce. I have written about myself as a poet, a poetic autobiography of sorts, that was published by Gale Research as part of their ongoing writers autobiography series. They asked for a longish essay up to 10,000 words. I gave them a small book of about 47 thousand words. They published the whole thing Art for Life: My Story, My Song. A lot of information is in there.
After the poetry-autobiography–I call it “poetry-autobiography” because it only talks about my work as a poet and does not go into any of my other writing or any of the other activities I have been involved in over the years. After that came out, I went on to write a short essay about my approach to the haiku. Based on the haiku section of the autobiography, that essay [On Writing Haiku] has been published a number of times including in Warpland, the literary journal out of Chicago State University, associated with the Gwendolyn Brooks Writers Conference.
As for the haiku project, I completed the manuscript. Have written over 200 haiku. Just never tried to get it published and was not that interested in publishing it myself. Two aspects about me and publishing that are relevant here.
First, I have never strongly desired to publish with an establishment press. The lack of a book by a mainstream press is one reason my work is not more widely known. I never wanted whatever success or relevance I achieve to be based in whole or even significantly on my association with the mainstream. That means I will most likely be on the periphery of publishing and popularity for the rest of my life.
At the same time, I dont want to give the impression that I would not publish a book with a Random House or whomever, because if the conditions were right, I certainly would. Its just that I am not too inclined to try and make it happen. I wont put any significant energy into pursuing mainstream publication.
Let me tell you two little stories that illustrate my point. The first is from 1967. I was still in the army, stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. I sent a manuscript of short stories, my first short story collection, to three companies. I believe it was Knopf, Dial, and William & Morrow because thats who published Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and LeRoi Jones. Charles Harris, an editor at Morrow whom I got to know some years later, sent me a letter in response to my submission. He said that they would be interested in the stories if I would add a couple of stories to fill out the time line.
The collection was basically linked short stories about a young man dealing with social pressures and trying to decide what he wanted to do for a living and whether to marry his girl friend and start raising a family. Most of the stories take place in roughly the same time period except for the last story which jumps about 40 years and takes place at the mans funeral. Harris was asking for a couple of stories to bridge those years. At the time I thought he wanted me to do something I didnt want to do. I thought he wanted me to write some other kinds of stories. I never even responded to Harris letter. After I got out the army, I joined the Free Southern Theatre [FST] and turned away from fiction.
Before FST, I was writing fiction and poetry. After FST, I wrote mostly drama, poetry and journalism. The journalism happened because I was a founding member of The Black Collegian Magazine in 1970. But my point is, I was too ignorant and too maladjusted to take advantage of a major publishing opportunity. I dont want to give the impression that the reason I dont have a book with a mainstream press is solely because of some kind of ideological purity.
At different times, I have worked with literary agents or submitted material, but for various reasons it did not work out. I can get individual pieces published almost anywhere because I know how to write well and I have something to say, but when you consider a collection of my writings, well, inevitably I offend the powers that be. And being on the outside does not bother me because, as I have written elsewhere, only a Negro wannabe is worried about offending our oppressors and exploiters, worried about whether the people who maintain the mainstream will accept our work.
On the one hand, there is an essential opposition to the status quo, but at the same time, I know there is also some social maladjustment on my part. I can be difficult, very difficult to deal with. A lot of it has to do with my personality, my likes and dislikes, my understandings and ignorances. I just dont like the mainstream. Period.
In fact, beyond my political disagreements, there are stylistic things I do which I know offend certain sensibilities. Although I try not to offend gratuitously, at the same time I know myself and I know my various audiences. I know some people react negatively to certain words, phrases, images, ideas; well, if those people are mainstream people, sometimes I use words and ideas that are offensive to them as a way of making my opposition clear. Plus, there is this New Orleans thing, where we will do some weird shit just to clear the air, to send the squares home so we can go on and get down.
The second story is recent. About a year ago, the director of a major university press contacted me and asked me to submit some material. I still havent sent them anything. Mind you, I have all kinds of manuscripts sitting around. A travel book, at least three collections of short stories, all kinds of poetry manuscripts, a science fiction novel that is half finished (it probably wont ever be finished because I am not that interested in the novel as a form), two photo and essay books that use the work of New Orleans photographers, so forth and so on. But, you know, its just not part of my nature to give the white establishment anything but my undying contempt.
I know that not every individual who works in the establishment represents the establishment views, and I know that much of my work could find a home there if I really worked at submitting it, but, fuck it, thats not what I am really interested in doing.
Other than my avoidance of publishing with the status quo, there is a second factor, namely the lack of major Black publishers in general and for poetry and fiction in particular. One reason there are so many self-published poets and fiction writers is because there are so few, literally only a handful, of Black publishers who deal with poetry and fiction.
Bear with meI know this all seems a long way away from responding to the question of haiku, but I dont think we can achieve a deep understanding of anything until we understand the context. Because we as African Americans were stripped of much of the material representations of African culture, most significantly of all, stripped of African languagesand you do know that language is both worldview and self-conceptbecause we were forced to use non-African forms and modalities of self expression, in order for us to maintain some sense of our own humanity we had to not only alter the content of what we put into the foreign forms that we were forced to use, we had to also alter the forms themselves so that those forms could fully represent us.
In America, our humanity has always been one of opposition to the status quo as long as the status quo was based on exploiting and oppressing us. That remains the case, it is just that the form of subjugation is no longer predominately racial in tone. Today our subjugation is environmental, gender-based, and economic in its major manifestations. By environmental I mean what most people mean but I also mean something more. We live in areas of environmental neglect and toxicity.
Additionally, from the standpoint of the social environment, whether you talk about education or health, access to transportation or recreation, we are at the bottom of most indexes. This is the basis of what I call an oppositional mentality. We are opposed to the conditions under which we are forced to live.
Here is the leap in my thinking: I believe this oppositional mentality also functions in the area of the arts and manifests itself in our always coming up, not only with new and interesting things to say, but also coming up with new ways to use existing forms and technology. We are innovators precisely because it is only through innovation that we can fully express ourselves and only through innovation can we mitigate, if not outright obliterate, our contemporary second class status and the debilitating legacies of our historic enslavement.
I dont think most artists think of this consciously, but I think almost all of the Black artists we revere have de facto altered the cultural landscape, created new forms, and offered fresh insights. I never was interested in writing haiku like the masters of the form. What I was interested in was mastering the form so that I could use the form to say what I wanted to say in the way I wanted to say it. Finally, I have not continued to explore haiku. Occasionally, I will write a haiku, but it is not something that I am committed to working on in general. Ive been there and done that. I can still do it, if I want to, but right now I want to do other things.
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#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane
#10 – Covenant: A Thriller by Brandon Massey
#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva by Ashley and JaQuavis
#12 – Don’t Ever Tell by Brandon Massey
#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide by Ntozake Shange
#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree
#15 – Homemade Loves by J. California Cooper
#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper
#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber
#18 – Purple Panties: An Eroticanoir.com Anthology by Sidney Molare
#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King
#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey
#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe
#22 Thug Matrimony by Wahida Clark
#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark
#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber
#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter
#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson
#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History by Ahati N. N. Toure
#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley
#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell
#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore
#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit by RM Johnson
#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins
#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell
#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard
#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris
#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice
#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields
#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class by Lisa B. Thompson
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By Melissa V. Harris-Perry
According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless Mammys behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own familys needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.
As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.
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A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family thats about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrinas inexorable winds is the voice of Wards narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her familys raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brothers blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt. Her fathers hands are like gravel, while her own hand slides through his grip like a wet fish, and a handsome boys muscles jabbered like chickens. Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isnt usually just metaphor for metaphors sake.
She conveys something fundamental about Eschs fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, whats salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.
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By Wole Soyinka
Aké: The Years of Childhood is a memoir of stunning beauty, humor, and perception
a lyrical account of one boy’s attempt to grasp the often irrational and hypocritical world of adults that equally repels and seduces him. Soyinka elevates brief anecdotes into history lessons, conversations into morality plays, memories into awakenings. Various cultures, religions, and languages mingled freely in the Aké of his youth, fostering endless contradictions and personalized hybrids, particularly when it comes to religion. Christian teachings, the wisdom of the ogboni, or ruling elders, and the power of ancestral spirits
who alternately terrify and inspire him
all carried equal metaphysical weight. Surrounded by such a collage, he notes that “God had a habit of either not answering one’s prayers at all, or answering them in a way that was not straightforward.” In writing from a child’s perspective, Soyinka expresses youthful idealism and unfiltered honesty while escaping the adult snares of cynicism and intolerance. His stinging indictment of colonialism takes on added power owing to the elegance of his attack.
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By Derrick Bell
In nine grim metaphorical sketches, Bell, the black former Harvard law professor who made headlines recently for his one-man protest against the school’s hiring policies, hammers home his controversial theme that white racism is a permanent, indestructible component of our society. Bell’s fantasies are often dire and apocalyptic: a new Atlantis rises from the ocean depths, sparking a mass emigration of blacks; white resistance to affirmative action softens following an explosion that kills Harvard’s president and all of the school’s black professors; intergalactic space invaders promise the U.S. President that they will clean up the environment and deliver tons of gold, but in exchange, the bartering aliens take all African Americans back to their planet. Other pieces deal with black-white romance, a taxi ride through Harlem and job discrimination.
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By Randall Kennedy
Among the best things about The Persistence of the Color Line is watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the positions about Mr. Obama staked out by black commentators on the left and right, from Stanley Crouch and Cornel West to Juan Williams and Tavis Smiley. He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr. Smiley consistently voiced skepticism regarding whether blacks should back Obama . . .
The finest chapter in The Persistence of the Color Line is so resonant, and so personal, it could nearly be the basis for a book of its own. That chapter is titled Reverend Wright and My Father: Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism. Recalling some of the criticisms of Americas past made by Mr. Obamas former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with feeling about his own father, who put each of his three of his children through Princeton but who never forgave American society for its racist mistreatment of him and those whom he most loved.
His father distrusted the police, who had frequently called him boy, and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedys father relished Muhammad Alis quip that the Vietcong had never called him nigger. The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in sympathetic historical light.
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 15 July 2012